It’s only March and the French Open isn’t until the end of May, but there’s reason to wonder (or in my case, as a devoted Serena disciple, worry) if Serena Williams will be ready to win the next grand slam of the year. She hasn’t played a competitive match since her Australian Open win and she announced Monday that she was pulling out of both the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells and the following WTA tournament, the Miami Open, due to knee problems that have prevented her from training.
“[I] am disappointed I cannot be there. I will keep moving forward and continue to be positive. I look forward to being back as soon as I can,” Williams said in a statement.
The scratch also means the world rankings will shift and Williams will cede her World No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber, who held the top spot before Williams won the Australian Open in January. Aside from some disappointed fans, Indian Wells (March 9-19)and the Miami Open (March 22- April 2) will be fine. The draw, even without the sport’s biggest star, is stacked.
Serena’s extended absence from competition, though, could hinder her preparation for the year’s next grand slam, the French Open, which begins May 28. In 2016, Indian Wells and Miami (both Masters 1000 tournaments) were two of only three tournaments she played between the Australian Open and the French Open (she finished runner up in both). The other was Rome. She was also scheduled to play in the Madrid Open but withdrew due to illness. For comparison’s sake, Kerber played seven tournaments in that stretch, not including Fed Cup matches.
Williams’ has pared down the number of tournaments she plays as she’s gotten older, preferring to focus on her relentless hunt for grand slams, but a knee injury that’s sidelining her for all of March, after not playing a match in February, is worrisome. Even if her knees are healthy enough to come back for the other two Masters 1000 events before the French Open (Madrid and Rome), she’ll be squeezing those competitive matches into just a few short weeks, right before Roland Garros.
In her historically great 2015 run, where she won three of four grand slams, Williams kept a busier match schedule, playing Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, and Rome in between her Australian Open and French Open wins. In 2014, she played Dubai, Miami, Charleston, Madrid, and Rome in that period, but she won neither the Australian or the French, though she did win the U.S. Open. In 2013, she played Doha, Dubai, Miami, Charleston, Madrid, and Rome; she won the French Open (and later the U.S. Open). Some years, Williams has had a heavier match schedule; others, she’s played less. But this year, due to her knee injury, is shaping up to be one of her lightest schedules so far and it’s not a stretch to think she might not be at her peak when the French Open rolls around. Even the greats aren’t immune to a little rustiness.
Serena Williams has proved time and again that when she’s at her best, no one can beat her. Right now, her health and readiness are the biggest questions.